Monday, July 31, 2017

Breaking Point

I work in a field where I am reminded every day that someone out there has it worse than I do. But today feels like an insurmountable day. It feels like there are mountains to climb and I just can't do it. I am doing my best to survive my divorce, but it is really, really hard. I am hoping that writing about it will help today.

My ex (she who shall not be named) and I began to have issues last summer, nearly one year ago. I am not going to tell her actions to the internet because I am attempting to keep in check my desire to slander her. She wronged me greatly, and I will leave it there.

We tried many months of therapy. We tried a couple months of separation while she was in Washington, DC. Nothing worked. On Valentine's Day, she told me that she had fallen out of love with me. She began to mention divorce.

We agreed to a trial separation for the spring.  It was to be twelve weeks. I located an apartment for us, I would take the first six weeks, she the second. I packed up belongings to take to the apartment. I wasn't happy with this solution, but I was attempting to make it work.  I got really sick just before I was to move. She had to move all my belongings out of our shared house and into the apartment while I slept for days on end. 

After I emerged from the fog of sickness, she told me to drive to my new apartment. She said this wasn't permanent, it was just a trial. Until she told me differently two days later.

On April 3, she said she wanted a divorce. This is the day that everything changed. I shifted in my mind from being married to being divorced. Up until that point, she was the one who wanted divorce. From this moment,  I wanted the divorce. I wanted to be free from nearly a year of unrelenting pain and walking on eggshells and weekends where she would kick me out of our house and make me stay in a hotel because she didn't want to see me.

What do you do on the day when your whole life falls apart?  I went to work, because I didn't know what else to do. And I have been forging forward and attempting to put the pieces back together ever since. 

The actual process of divorcing has been a nightmare. We attempted a collaborative divorce process. This was an attempt to save money and expedite the process. But she has dragged her feet and stuck her head in the sand all along. She has gone many weeks without communicating with me or our financial planner (who is doing the division of assets) and our attorneys. She has blocked my calls and text messages. She refuses to turn in documents that are requested by the financial planner. This has now dragged on for four months.

I am at my breaking point today. I am at a loss of what to do. I am again mired in the concrete of her passive aggressive refusal to move forward. She has yet again refused to turn in required documents. Our financial planner is going on vacation for a week. So I am staring down another week with no progress. No potential of filing the divorce decree this week. Another week of unknowing and still being entangled with someone with whom I want no further contact.

I am no longer hurt, I am enraged. I am enraged that I have become the driver of this divorce. I am enraged that she refuses to extend even a shred of common courtesy to me or to the professionals attempting to facilitate our divorce.

I am heartbroken at the hatred I feel for someone that I used to love. I am heartbroken at the coldness and calculation with which she has approached this divorce. 

Today is a breaking point for me. I am just not sure yet what has broken.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Helping a friend through divorce

I wish that I was not joining the ranks of the divorced. This is not what I wanted for myself, my life, or my marriage.  It was not initiated by me, although I am now pushing forward to complete the process.

I wish more than anything that this was not my life path. But it is. And I have learned a few things along the way, that might be helpful for those who are helping a friend through divorce. 

The helpful things:

1. You can attempt to recognize the extent of the impact of the divorce
A divorce is said to be like a death with no body. This is true. The ugly withered fingers of divorce work their work into just about every area of your life.  For me, I lost my home, my pets, and started over with $0 in my bank account. Everything changes in an instant. Your friend will feel like the bottom dropped out from under them.

2. You can offer your friend grace when they are too tired, sad, or otherwise having difficulties coping
Divorce takes a tremendous amount of energy.  Just existing takes energy. Your friend likely won't be as productive as they once were. They might be too exhausted to keep up with social obligations. They probably won't remember dates, times, or other things.  Extend them grace. My employer has been tremendously gracious to me throughout this season of my life, and I cannot express my gratitude enough.

3.Make sure your friend is eating healthy food
One of my colleagues gave me gift cards to the cafeteria to make sure that I was eating real food. Other friends brought me coffee, invited me out for breakfast, or otherwise made sure that I was actually consuming food and not subsisting on cereal and bananas.

4. The little things matter more than you will ever know
The little things that so many of my friends did for me will not be forgotten. Allowing me to do laundry in their homes so that I didn't have to pay for the Laundromat. Picking me up from the airport so I didn't have to take an Uber. Asking me how I was doing and listening to the answer. Making me laugh with funny instagram pictures and cat videos and pictures of their children.

5. Make sure your friend has a place to go with you
Holidays are hard. Weekends are hard. Special days like anniversaries and birthdays are hard. I am thankful for all the people who reached out to me and took me out for coffee and trips to the farmer's market or walks or board game nights so that I didn't have to be alone with my thoughts. I am thankful for my family who flew me home to Montana for Easter.

The not so helpful things
1. Don't draw comparisons
Every divorce is different, just like every marriage is different. Your divorce/your parents divorce/your siblings/friends/neighbor's divorce is going to be different from mine. Just because you have lived through a divorce in some capacity does not automatically make us the same.

2. Don't triangulate/enable triangulation
This is just good advice for life, but also good advice in the aftermath of a divorce.  Don't tell me about what my ex is doing. Don't carry messages to/from my ex. Just don't.

3. Don't give advice/pass judgment
I unfriended and blocked someone really quickly for saying, "every divorce has two people involved in it and two sides to the story" when I reached out for support on a particularly bad day. Also, don't give advice unless specifically asked.

4. Don't slander my ex
Of course this is something that I want to do, and I may even do in therapy and with my close friends. But it is not helpful for you to do it for me.  Please don't.

5. Don't treat me any differently
I have experienced a loss, but I am not lost. My heart was broken, but I am not broken. I am angry, but I am not enraged. Please just be my friend.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Why I'm breaking up with the ELCA

I have started and re-started this post so many times. I wish there was an easy way to say this. I used to love the ELCA. But I don't anymore.

This is my story of how I broke up with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

I have literally been a lifelong Lutheran. I was baptized at just over one month old at Hope Lutheran Church, in Bozeman, MT. As a child, church was a place of comfort and belonging. I played my trombone in the church. I was an active member of youth group. I went to Lutheran bible camp. "Lutheran" to me always had connotations of warmth and home.

I went to a Lutheran liberal arts college. I spent six summers working at two different Lutheran bible camps. I participated in a  Lutheran volunteer program for a year. I used to be proud to be a Lutheran.

Just before I turned 30 I followed the call to seminary. I attended a Methodist seminary, because it was in Denver and so was I. I entered into candidacy, the process that prepares seminarians to become pastors.  I had a wonderfully supportive candidacy committee. They nurtured me and helped me to grow. Seminary was a great experience. I loved Clinical Pastoral Education. I loved my internship. I got clarity on what God was calling me to do, which is the hope of any vocation, and I learned that I was called to be a hospital chaplain.

This is not acceptable in the eyes of the ELCA. 

Chaplaincy is considered a "specialized ministry" in the ELCA. Other ministries in this category are military chaplaincy, campus ministry, and outdoor ministry.  Before you can receive a call to specialized ministry (a piece of fancy paper that allows you to receive ELCA benefits, pension, and so on), you are required to serve as a parish pastor for three years. This is referred to as the "3 year rule."

I have heard from several bishops, who shall remain nameless, the following with regards to this rule:

"It is the only way that you will learn how to be a Lutheran leader."
"The parish is the location of the ministry of word and sacrament."
"We have a clergy shortage in parishes."
"We need first call pastors to be in congregations that could not otherwise afford them." (ie: cheap labor)
"The truest calling to the ministry of word and sacrament is to be a parish pastor."
"Every one else has had to do it, and so do you."

But somehow, something magical happens after three years in a parish that allows you to do specialized ministry.

I will admit that I have known about this rule since I entered seminary. I also knew that it would be extraordinarily difficult to bypass. I will own that.  However, if your bishop is willing to bring an exception regarding this 3 year rule to the other bishops, the Council of Bishops, it is likely that your exception will be granted.  This is particularly frustrating because different bishops are more rigid gatekeepers than other bishops. In other words, if your bishop likes you, they will bring an exception on your behalf. If your bishop doesn't like you, you are out of luck.

This year I found myself with a full-time chaplain job and only 6 months of parish ministry experience. (Because the yearlong parish internship doesn't count as experience.) I also found myself in trouble with my bishop.

When I asked if an exception to the three years rule could be made, I was denied. I was also advised to "leave this denomination if you can't follow the rules." Shortly thereafter I was thanked for my "caring and compassionate ministry in this city." Which feels like a kick in the stomach, given that this same ministry is not recognized as Word and Sacrament until three years have passed while working in a parish.

This denomination needs to evolve or it will die. The ministry of word and sacrament isn't confined to a church. The role of parish pastor is just one expression of word and sacrament ministry. It is not possible to make every candidate fit a parish-shaped hole. Just because you have open congregations that cannot afford to pay a pastor with more experience doesn't mean that you should force people into serving parishes who have another calling.

I am a chaplain in my soul. I love my work. It gets me out of bed every day and I fall asleep satisfied every night. I can point to tangible things that I do to alleviate suffering in this broken world every single day. I am happily doing ministry, perhaps some of the best evangelism there is, at the bedside of my patients. I hear from many people that having a chaplain at the bedside of their dying loved one is such a comfort, and might inspire them to return to a church. 

I am doing God's work. I am doing sacred, beautiful, painful, and holy work. It is not in a parish. It does not directly support a congregation. I am doing the thing that I simply must do. 

And so, because the denomination of my baptism, confirmation, first communion, and ordination will not recognize this work, I am breaking up with the ELCA. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

On Talking to Children About Death and grief

Recently, some of my online groups have been talking about how to talk to children about death and grief. I realized that I am in a unique position with my work at the intersection of life and death to share what I have learned, since I visit with many children and their families about death and grief.

I have found that the resource, "What Will I Tell the Children?" published by the University of Nebraska Medical Center has been one of the most useful pieces of literature for me.

Here are some of the things that I have learned in my work as a hospital chaplain about how best to support children with regards to the death of a loved one.

1. The importance of security and secure attachments cannot be stated enough. If the child is experiencing the death of a parent, they need security that they will be cared for.  They need to know that adults will meet their needs. It is best to explicitly say this. It can be as simple as, "I know your mom has cared for you up until now, but now we, your aunt and uncle, will be taking care of you. You will live with us."  If the child is experiencing the death of a grandparent or other relative, they might feel like their parents could die too.  Listen to these fears because they are real. Share that while everyone will die someday, that time will likely not be for a very long time.

2. Help your child to say goodbye  This can take place at the bedside or at the funeral service. Encourage the child to say goodbye in their own way.  The Four Gifts of Dying ("I love you", "Thank You", "I'm Sorry" and "Goodbye") are as appropriate for children as they are for adults. If the death was sudden, encourage the child to write or dictate a letter to the person that died. It can be buried or cremated.

3. Give accurate, age-appropriate information about the dying process Use simple concrete language. Do not use euphemisms such as "lost" or "passed." Do not be afraid to say "Dead" or "Death." Talk about how once someone has died, they do not hurt anymore. Be prepared for questions like "What happens after death?" and "Where does the body go?" It is okay to let your child know that you do not have all the answers.

4. Keep the lines of communication open  Let your child know that they are always welcome to talk. Talking about the loss of their loved one is important and won't cause additional pain. You can say, "I miss Grandpa too. Do you remember some fun times we had together?" 

5. Enlist the help of outside resources  Involve your child's school (principal, social worker and school psychologist), church (if relevant), and therapists (such as play therapists or family therapists).  Let your child know that they are many people who care about their well-being.

6. Normalize Grief  Let your child know that it is okay to feel sad, angry, or happy. Sometimes it is possible to feel all those feelings at the same time. Say that the intensity of these feelings will come and go and whatever they are feeling is okay.

7. Understand the long-ranging concerns Children and teenagers who are losing loved ones might be concerned about the future. They might ask, "Where will we spend Christmas now that Grandma is dead?" or "Who will walk me down the aisle at my wedding if Dad is dead?" Provide love and reassurance. Recognize that birthdays, holidays and other special days such as graduations, proms and weddings will come with grief.

Monday, March 06, 2017

On listening

My online friend, and fellow worker at the intersection of life and death, Caleb Wilde, said something profound the other day.  He said, "Sometimes the only answer is a deeply listening ear."

One of the things that Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) trains out of you is the impulse to fill spaces with words. It is a human impulse to want to say something comforting or meaningful or give an answer. People of faith are particularly terrible about doing this.  The motivation behind it is generally pure, to offer comfort, but it shuts people down.

I spend lots of time sitting in silence.  People often tell me, "your job must be so hard" or "how do you do it?" And my answer is that nothing that I do is exceptionally difficult, but it is not easy.

There are many, many times that I say nothing at all. I bear silent, compassionate witness to suffering.  I speak words of comfort, but I give no answers. Because they are not mine to give.  I provide education, such as about the physical symptoms of dying, but I never provide predictions. But most of the time I just listen.  Perhaps this is what makes my job difficult.

I believe it is possible to be accustomed to the physical challenges of this job (to cease being disturbed by trauma or the sights, sounds and smells that accompany hospital chaplaincy. Or if I am disturbed, it no longer keeps me awake at night.) but the spiritual and emotional challenges are another thing entirely.   It is absolutely contrary to human nature to say nothing sometimes.  But part of being a spiritual caregiver is knowing when to speak and knowing when to listen.

And in the deepest suffering, words provide little comfort.  But showing up, being fully there, and not being repulsed by suffering (as it is human suffering to want to run away) is the essence of chaplaincy.  Whenever someone starts wailing in the ER or on the floors, I run toward the sounds of human grief.  I take so many grieving mothers and weeping children into my arms.  I hold the hands of dads and husbands who are crumbling in the face of trying to be strong. I listen not only with my ears, but with my soul.

Chaplaincy is when I listen to your soul with mine.